Little John Nee

“Expanding the universe”

A new show from Little John Nee is always to be savoured and, on September 4, Druid’s Mick Lally Theatre hosts the premiere of Radio Rosario, a serious comedy about frustration, foreboding, and fulfilment, and an ode to “the magical wireless”.

Set in Galway in the near future, Radio Rosario introduces us to Valve Hegarty, a weekend cabaret singer forced to write jingles to pay the rent. He has a hankering for something of substance and is drawn to 20th-century valve radios – beautiful contraptions that shaped the events and the consciousness of their time. A chance meeting leads him to the site of Connemara’s Marconi Wireless Station, built over 100 years ago. A soundscape of ghostly broadcasts begins. The music of a dance orchestra transforms Valve’s kitchen; vintage advertisements try to sell products from the past; Franklin D Roosevelt invites us to join him for one of his legendary fireside talks; Winston Churchill declares, “We shall fight on the beaches...”

Last Saturday afternoon during a rehearsal lunch break, Little John sat down with me to chat about his new show and reflect on his three decades’ living and working in Galway.

Little John was born in Glasgow in 1959 and returned with his family to their Letterkenny home aged 12 (he and I were classmates at both primary and secondary school there ). In his teens he sang with local outfits Joe Petrol and the Petrol Bombs and Hemlock. Expelled from St Eunan’s College after smashing the windows one wild night (yes folks, believe it or not, LJ was not always the beatific Buddha of good vibes he is today ) John moved to London where he worked on the sites, lived in squats and revelled in the heyday of punk.

In 1982 he returned to Dublin where he began performing as Charlie Chaplin and became one of the iconic street characters of Grafton Street Four years later, he moved to Galway and joined the newly founded Macnas with whom he performed for many years, as well as doing his own shows, for both children and adults. Shows like The Derry Boat, Sparkplug, Rural Electric, The Mental, and The Ballad of Jah Kettle captivated audiences all round Ireland and further afield. He has also appeared on film, TV and radio, and recently published a collection of haiku (The Apocalypse Came on a Friday ) and a CD with the Caledonia Highly Strung Orchestra (Songs from the Lough Swilly Delta ).

Radio Rosario is his most ambitious personal show yet and it is co-directed by Laura Sheeran who has often collaborated with LJ, usually in a musical capacity. “Laura is an inspirational person to work with,” John enthuses. “We have been working together for a long time now so she knows me and we have a good rapport. Recently, Laura has been doing a lot of video work and photography so I wanted to explore that side and we will be using video and projections in the show, albeit in a simple sense; I am aiming for a simple beauty. Laura is also doing music even though I initially did not ask her, just to leave her free to do the direction and visuals; but we end up doing music most of the time anyway. If we are stuck we take time out to make a bit of music and it frees up our creative process, it is a very good way of communicating and moving things along. There is a lot of synthesiser in Radio Rosario there is no live music though I sing live, so that’s a change from my other shows.”

Two of the main themes of Radio Rosario are “love and imagination” and I suggest that John is flying those flags in direct opposition to the ‘anti love’ and ‘anti imagination’ of Donald Trump. “Exactly!” he agrees. “It is a response to Trump. When I started writing the show I thought it was going to be about Marconi radio. I thought ‘wow that was in Clifden’ and with 2020 coming up I liked the idea of Galway speaking to the rest of Europe and the New World at the time of Marconi. I was fascinated by the magnitude of the whole Marconi station project. So Marconi was going to feature more but very quickly I found out what a fascist he was and not in any casual sense, he really went for it; he was friendly with Mussolini and he facilitated the rise of fascism in many ways. The show has also coincided with the election of Donald Trump who has been spectacularly awful and continues to be so. That inspired the urgency of the show; I had initially intended this to happen next year but with Trump I felt it needed to be done ASAP, so I was ready to do it. Then I was lucky enough to get funding but even if I had not got funding I would still have done it.”

Just as Valve Hegarty loves old radios, a strain of nostalgia infuses many of John’s shows. “Nostalgia is a very interesting thing in the context of this show because nostalgia is an emotional state,” he observes. “We achieve a feeling of well-being through nostalgia or objects to help enable that feeling. I do not take drink or drugs anymore and it is a really interesting thing to go ‘ohh, a valve radio? Awww!’ (laughs ). I have always believed that who tells your story defines you. If you do not tell your own story someone else will tell it for you. Radio was part of that; defining reality, culture, the boundaries of imagination - we ourselves have been defined by radio.”

John reveals why he chose the surname Hegarty for his protagonist; “It is in tribute to Antony of Antony and the Johnsons –I love the fact that he was born Tony Hegarty, a good Derry name. At the same time he, well she, because she is now Anohini, soars as a singer into the potential of who we are as beings on this earth.”

Little John first performed in Galway aged 16, singing with Hemlock at Slogadh. Ten years later, in 1986, he moved here permanently. “I came here a couple of times to perform in the 80s,” he recalls. “Going back to Dublin, where I was then living, I found myself increasingly thinking – I was drinking too much then and things were a bit precarious- that if I could save some money I would love to spend time in Galway. There was a nourishment I got from the west and I always got a welcome here. I came for the Arts Festival in 1986 and suddenly realised if I signed on the dole in Galway I could live here, and then Macnas started so that made the move possible too.”

John shares his fondest memories of Galway performing; “Leading the Macnas parade felt great because I would be at the very front and get the sense of anticipation from the audience when the whole of Galway seemed to be there. There was that excitement where people were waiting and waiting and going down that street was the best feeling in the world. I sang with The Sawdoctors and a couple of the Undertones in the Big Top one night which was gas, being onstage with the Undertones was a big thing for me; I had first seen them in Letterkenny in 1977 and I would have seen them many times in London. The Derry Boat was another highlight which was a real Galway show because Fergal Gallagher and Padraic Breathnach helped me put it together. We had a budget of 400 punts and had to rehearse in Breathnach’s house where we also got most of our props. Mike Diskin was always a great help to me too and he came onboard as producer of that show.”

John has also loved his many rural tours; “There is nothing like travelling the country in a small van and coming to a hall, having to call into a house to collect the keys, noticing that it is not a theatre yet having to prepare it to make it as magical a stage as possible, then presenting a show so people coming into that hall will have a totally new experience and you hope you’ve expanded their universe. I think that is the purpose of theatre and the arts; to expand the universe.”

Radio Rosario runs at the Mick Lally Theatre from Monday, September 4 to Saturday, September 9th, at 8pm. Tickets are €16 / €14.


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